Miscellany – Pope in the Dock, Justice Stevens retirement, Serin gas and the enduring Flannery O’Connor

Michael Cook notes and ruminates on what I hope is an eccentric call to try Pope Benedict XVI for crimes against humanity in connection with the Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandal, and then segués into other who then should be there:

  • the Secretary-General of the United Nations
  • the executive director of USA Swimming
  • Texas Governor Rick Perry

Tu quoque, the argument that because you did it too, I’m not guilty, must be the worst of all arguments. But anyone with the facts acknowledges that the Catholic Church’s problems are no worse than those of other organisations, and they are probably a good deal better. A reporter for yesterday’s issue of Newsweek had the bright idea of asking insurance companies whether the Catholic Church paid higher premiums because its employees were a greater risk. The answer was No  – and it never had. “We don’t see vast difference in the incidence rate between one denomination and another,” said an insurer. “It’s pretty even across the denominations.”

Cook then notes in moderate detail the secular intellectual defense, in the name of liberating children’s sexuality, of lowering age of consent laws – proposals that make me think “I don’t want this intellectual around any child; there’s more going on here than disinterested philanthropy.”

Putting the Pope in the dock would spark a world-wide debate about paedophilia. Why is it so difficult to police? What is there about our views on sex which encourages it? Should we wind back our hypersexualised culture?

All the indicators are that the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church is winding down now as the Pope and bishops get tougher and priests have clearer views on authentic Christian sexuality. But no one is preparing for the coming paedophilia crisis when the oversexed teens of 2010 are 34 and believe they should still have fun with 14-year-olds.

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From the Department of Bombast at the Wall Street Journal, an inflated warning that the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens “gives President Obama a chance to lay the groundwork for a future liberal Supreme Court majority.”

Not even with this Senate will Obama slide through in an election year anyone to the left of Justice Stevens. He is, after all, “The Supreme Court … liberal standard-bearer,” as the Journal’s own subheadline has it. Others writing about Stevens’ retirement more aptly note the irony that any nominee could easily be to Stevens’ right.

Justice Stevens was particularly infuriating not only on religion cases, larding his opinions with secularist code, but on the disregard for religion in other cases. Robert Nagel summarized some of the case against Stevens in Justice Stevens’ Religion Problem. In a school voucher case:

[I]n four different places in an opinion barely five paragraphs long, Justice Stevens used the word “indoctrination” as a synonym for religious education. Stevens asserted that the voucher program was being used to pay for “the indoctrination of thousands of grammar school children.” He surmised that an educational emergency might provide a motivation for parents to “accept religious indoctrination [of their children] that they otherwise would have avoided.” He decried the fact that “the vast majority” of voucher recipients chose to receive “religious indoctrination at state expense.” And he depicted the voucher program as a governmental choice “to pay for religious indoctrination.”

As striking as it is, this use of the word “indoctrination” does not necessarily indicate hostility to religion. Like the words “sectarian” and “fundamentalist,” which have appeared with disturbing regularity in Supreme Court opinions, “indoctrinate” has a literal meaning that is not pejorative. It can, of course, mean simply to instruct or to teach. But, needless to say, like those other words, it has more sinister connotations. Given the common association of the word “indoctrinate” with totalitarian methods, there might be at least a “slight suspicion” that Justice Stevens did not use the term in its neutral sense, especially since he nowhere refers to public school indoctrination. In any event, the duty to determine whether Justice Stevens’ official positions reflect animosity to religion arose well before the voucher case.

It can be traced back as early as 1990, when the religion clause expert Douglas Laycock noted that under Stevens’ constitutional decisions religion is “subject to all the burdens of government, but entitled to few of the benefits.” Laycock charged that the apparent explanation for this combination of legal positions was hostility to religion. Laycock’s hypothesis ripened into full-blown suspicion by June 2000 when Justice Stevens took the position that the free speech rights of the Boy Scouts were not violated by a state law requiring them to employ an avowed homosexual as an assistant scoutmaster. In the course of his dissent, Stevens offered his opinion about the source of what he termed “prejudices” against homosexuality. He wrote, “Like equally atavistic opinions about certain racial groups, these roots have been nourished by sectarian doctrine.” Whatever he might have meant later by using the word “indoctrination,” there is no question what “prejudices” and “atavistic” mean. The passage is, as Michael Stokes Paulsen of the Minnesota Law School put it, a “slander, disparaging the good faith . . . of any religious worldview—such as those of [some] Christians, Jews, and Muslims—that adheres to traditional views of sexual morality.”

Even decisions that as a formal matter have little to do with religion take on a different coloration when Stevens’ apparent scorn for some religions is factored in. On February 26 of this year, for instance, eight members of the Court ruled that the federal racketeering statute (popularly known as RICO) did not apply to the efforts of the Pro-Life Action Network to shut down various abortion clinics. The rather straightforward reasoning was that, unlike the members of organized crime who are typical objects of RICO prosecutions, the antiabortion protestors did not obtain anyone else’s property for their own use. Since the crime of extortion requires that the offender obtain someone else’s property, the pro-life protests could not be prosecuted under RICO. Even pro-abortion rights advocates like Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed. Only Justice Stevens dissented. He claimed that “even when an extortionist has not taken possession of the property that the victim has relinquished, she has nonetheless ‘obtained’ that property if she has used violence to force her victim to abandon it.” On the basis of this thin reed Stevens was willing to impose on protestors acting out of profound religious convictions the same draconian punishments that are ordinarily imposed on gangsters.

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Over at TownHall.com and elsewhere in the world of “Movement Conservatism,” Chicken Littles are practicing precision, coordinated vapors over the inference that the U.S. will not commit nuclear genocide in response to chemical, electromagnetic or other non-nuclear attacks. For instance, the mercenary Dick Morris. As Daniel Larison puts it, “quite insane.”

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Thomas Merton wrote that “when I read Flannery O’Connor, I do not think of Hemingway, or Katherine Anne Porter, or Sartre, but rather of someone like Sophocles.” Though O’Connor herself would surely have scoffed at such praise, she is among a bare handful of American writers, modern or otherwise, of whom such a thing might plausibly be said.

But her reputation rests in part on a persistent misunderstanding. Unlike most of the other major American novelists of the 20th century, O’Connor wrote not as a more or less secular humanist but as a believer, a rigorously orthodox Roman Catholic. Her fiction was permeated with religious language and symbolism, and its underlying intent was in many cases specifically spiritual. Yet most of O’Connor’s early critics failed to grasp her intentions, and even now many younger readers are ignorant of the true meaning of her work.

So Terry Teachout concludes his introduction to a lengthy book review of Brad Gootch’s biography of O’Connor.

O’Connor, to her credit, took the homespun beliefs of her fellow Southerners with the utmost seriousness. Even more surprisingly, she regarded them with exceptional imaginative sympathy, seeking to portray in her fiction the sometimes bizarre ways in which spiritual enthusiasm manifested itself in the lives of people who, lacking an orthodoxy to guide them, were forced to re-create the forms of religion from scratch. As she explained in a 1959 letter:

“The religion of the South is a do-it-yourself religion, something which I as a Catholic find painful and touching and grimly comic. It’s full of unconscious pride that lands them in all sorts of ridiculous religious predicaments. They have nothing to correct their practical heresies and so they work them out dramatically.”

Her sympathy, she added, arose from the fact that “I accept the same fundamental doctrines of sin and redemption and judgment that they do.”

(Emphasis added)

Her sympathy for do-it-yourself Christianity may be what makes her work more enduring than things like the Steve Martin movie Leap of Faith, which leavens cynicism with a touch of ambiguous sentimentality. Teachout asks whether O’Connor will endure only by being misunderstood as a satirist rather than a sympathizer writing grotesqueries. I don’t know, but her deep, pervasive Christian faith is well out of the closet for decades now, and her reputation continues to grow.